Of Charlottesville, the “first white president,” black football players, and Civil Rights history


The cover photo of “North of Dixie” is by Don Hogan Charles, from Newark N.J. July 1967. 

The racial profiling, physical abuse and near-murder of Seattle Seahawks star defensive lineman Michael Bennett by Las Vegas police recently demonstrates that it doesn’t matter how famous you are. If you have black skin, and especially if you’re male, you could be gunned down by the police at any time.

It’s especially resonant in Wisconsin as Bennett is the twin brother of Packer tight end Martellus Bennett (The Packers beat the Seahawks in Green Bay Sunday). Michael gained notoriety of sorts for his one-knee-on-the-ground posture during the National Anthem before Seahawks’ preseason games this year. His stance of mourning dissent was akin to Colin Kaepernick’s, and those of a handful of recent Cleveland Browns, among others. Their resistance to reflexive patriotism has eloquently and provocatively highlighted the nation’s ongoing betrayal of its exalted ideals, “the land of the free,” through pervasive systemic racism and now, a presidential administration that promotes and defends hatred and racism at most every turn.

Of course, many previously-anonymous, unarmed black men, like St. Louis’s Anthony Smith, became famous posthumously at the deadly hands of police – a disturbing recurring story. It just keeps happening over and over, which is why a longer perspective on American race relations and reform of police procedures and behaviors is urgently needed. (Please see footnote) 1
The powerful and incisive new article by Ta-Nehisi Coates in the latest Atlantic magazine provides deep and illuminating insight into the mentality and real-life effects of whiteness and white privilege, and into why Donald Trump and his administration has boldly supported and advanced racist activities and policies. It’s a meaty and tough-minded read but well worth your time:

“The First White President” by Ta-Nehisi Coates

A provocative historical premise of the article undercuts the conventional wisdom that Democrats must woo back working-class whites to win again: “The myth of the virtuous white working class was made central to American identity, its sins needed to be rendered invisible. The fact was, working-class whites had been agents of racist terrorism since at least the draft riots of 1863; terrorism could not be neatly separated from the racist animus found in every class of whites.” 2

Coates’ article, with its long historical perspective on race in America, complements visual history in one of the year’s most compelling photography books, North of Dixie: Civil Rights Photography Beyond the South by Mark Speltz, a public historian from Madison. The book documents how the Civil Rights movement and racism of the 1960s extended deeply into the North (and protests went as far back into the 1930s Jim Crow era). As the book’s website notes: “Photographs inspired activists, galvanized public support, and implored local and national politicians to act, but they also provided means of surveillance and repression that were used against movement participants.”  3

Author Speltz explains that many Northern newspapers and magazines, fearful of controversy, refused to publish many of these civil rights photos, such as the one of Malcolm X below. Contextualizing them today, the photos may also give insight as to why Trump won in rust-belt states nobody expected him to win, which gained him his Electoral College victory.

You’ll also see imagery not far removed from that seen in Charlottesville, Virginia, recently the subject of profound and tragic controversy regarding white supremacists, white nationalists and Nazis. The photo below from North of Dixie looks like a shot from Charlottesville in 2017, but it’s actually counter-protesters taunting Chicago Freedom Movement marchers in 1966. It illustrates how frequently young men seem to be attracted to fascist ideology, if they are cultivated into racial hatred.

Photo by Art Shay, Chicago, Illinois 1966

The next photo below, also from Chicago, suggests how early such hatred can be developed, certainly before young people are properly educated. It underscores the crucial role of education, in terms of teaching the nation’s democratic foundation of equal treatment and opportunity espoused by the framers of the Constitution. Also one must learn of the tragedy of the Civil War fought over the South’s social and economic dependence on slavery. Sadly, the social animus – and its underlying hateful, fearful and anti-American presumptions – persist today, not only in the South.

Photo by Art Shay, Chicago, Il 1966

These photos are journalism, but 1966 Shay’s alley shot has an art photo’s symbolic resonance, as it leads the eye from the nasty, illiterate pavement scrawls to the boy’s smirk, then down a deep perspective, following a zig-zagging crack into an uncertain and ominous future. That future is now, when bigotry and hate crimes have spiked dramatically since Donald Trump began his provocative, divisive presidency. But it also queries where we go from here.

The ensuing photo shows a Civil Rights protester serving a dual purpose, opposition to the Vietnam war as well as to racial hostility in America. This correlates to the intelligence and strategies behind today’s Black Lives Matter movement.

Photo by Julius Lester, New York, NY 1967

Malcolm X was the militant Civil rights leader who embraced nonviolence in late in his life and was perhaps killed by a black man for doing so. In the photo below, he displays the Nation of Islam newspaper, with its shocking headline. This was an unpublished picture, among hundreds taken for a May 31, 1963 LIFE magazine article.

Photo of Malcolm X by Gordon Parks, Chicago, Illinois, 1963

It’s also important to remember that people on both sides of the racial divide are only human, all sinners as a true Christian should acknowledge, though some transgressions are worse than others, like that of Malcolm’s killer.

Let’s consider Ezekiel Elliott. Justice, ideally blind to her own biases, seems also a gagged-and-bound hostage, somewhere beneath a football stadium. Elliott, a star running back and alleged girlfriend-beater is playing this season for the Dallas Cowboys. A procedural decision by a Texas judge recently overruled the NFL’s evidently appropriate decision to suspend the African-American Elliott for the first six games of 2017 season, without pay. Regardless of those who might question her motives, his ex-girlfriend Tiffany Thompson was quite evidently abused and beaten by Elliott, multiple times in 2016, right before the Cowboys drafted him. Since being charged, he also forcefully exposed the breasts of another woman in public, not having learned much, it seems. The Cowboys have a history of ignoring some of the worst behavior of football players, if they think they can squeeze out some wins by hiring them. A bit like the blind loyalty of some Trump supporters, it’s a sad commentary that the Cowboys remain “America’s team” with by far the NFL’s leading profits of fan sales of team merchandise.
The league, to its credit, finally listened to a woman seriously, and will continue to pursue this case. For his many faults, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell shows he can learn and change. So, one hopes, Justice has her day.

But Elliott is the African-American exception, having won a large measure of privilege that he’s apparently abused as well. By contrast, Civil Rights activists have been peaceful, strong-backed, but largely non-violent, unless the police or counter-protesters get physical or worse, as Speltz’s important book shows.

Photos by Charles Brittin, Los Angeles, CA 1965

The next photos (above) by Charles Brittin show that police tactics were not much different back in the 1960s, as we see a black woman In Los Angeles in March 1965 being brutally removed from a peaceful non-violent site protesting the shocking violence in Selma, earlier that month.

The shot below by Julian Wilson graphically Illustrates the courage of non-violent protesters, risking being buried alive in hopes of stopping construction of a new school that would further segregate neighborhood schools. The image also hauntingly recalls the burial of exterminated Jews by Nazis during the Holocaust. 4

Photo by Julian C. Wilson, Cleveland, OH April 1964

This daring sort of act may have inspired “Tank Man,” (below, photo not from North of Dixie) a single anonymous protester at Tiananmen Square in 1989. He stopped the Communist Chinese government tanks in their tracks by simply standing up to them, part of a student-led protest demanding freedom of speech, freedom of the press and government accountability. The protests were forcibly suppressed after the government declared martial law. In what became known in the West as the Tiananmen Square Massacretroops with assault rifles and tanks killed at least several hundred demonstrators trying to block the military’s advance towards Tiananmen Square.

Photo of “Tank Man” in Tiananmen Square, June, 1989,  by Jeff Widener Associated Press

North of Dixie also covers one of the most subtly pernicious and far-reaching aspects of systemic racism: redlining or housing discrimination. My own hometown of Milwaukee – to this day one of the most certain segregated cities in America –  became a fair-housing hotbed, especially when the iconoclastic Catholic priest James Groppi began leading the fight against housing discrimination. Groppi – whom I was fortunate enough to have studied religion with as a young elementary school student – was an inspirational and hard-headed figure. I’m sure he helped inspire me to later do fair-housing testing: going to homes for sale posing as a prospective home buyer with a black female partner. (A 2017 independent report on the Milwaukee police procedures and policies, requested by the police chief, found the department sorely lacking in its relations with, and profiling of, the minority populations it ostensibly serves.)

In the North of Dixie photo below, Groppi stands with two other pioneers, Milwaukee’s first black alderwoman Vel Phillips, and (at left, in the white hat), comedian and social activist Dick Gregory, who recently died, but not before publishing a powerfully provocative book of his own, Defining Moments in Black History: Reading Between the Lies. 

Dick Gregory, Father James Groppi and Ald. Vel Phillips. Unknown Photographer, Milwaukee WI, Sept. 1967, from “North of Dixie: Civil Rights Photography Beyond the South.”

I can’t wait to read Gregory’s new book, but he has been on my radar as an author ever since I bought his first book From the Back of the Bus in the early ’60s. It was a collection of his stand-up observations, which included pithy posed photos of Gregory illustrating some of his gags and points, and it came two years before his better-known 1964 autobiography Nigger.

Dick Gregory’s 1962 photo-illustrated book “From the Back of the Bus” helped open my young eyes and mind to Civil Rights, and Gregory himself is a subject in Mark Speltz’s new photo documentary book “North of Dixie.” Photo by Kevin Lynch   

A telling Gregory comment in From Back of the Bus addresses Northern redlining of real estate: “Down South, they don’t care how close I get as long as I don’t get too big; and up North, they don’t care how big I get as long as I don’t get too close.” 5

The final photo I’ll share from Mark Speltz’s North of Dixie book shows the human side of the controversial Black Panthers, a militant civil rights activist group of the era. The Panthers did resort to violence at times, by the dictum of “by any means necessary” for racial justice. Yet they were also demonized whole-cloth by the government, especially the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover. In the photo below, we see Panther Charles Bursey serving breakfast to a child in Oakland, California. The Panthers raised enough funds and resources to help feed numerous neighborhood children and families throughout the United States.

This brings us forward to the next steps for The Black Lives Matter movement and the implicit query of all these photos: Will we learn from the history laid bare in this book, that racism’s poisoning and coagulation of the American spirit infected the North as well as the South? BLM is now forming new initiatives – The Electoral Justice Project and The Black Futures Lab – that, they say, will address black voter alienation and transform the ways that black communities participate in the 2018 election and beyond, as reported by Dani McClain in “The Future of BLM” in The Nation. 6

In this age of increasingly visually-oriented information and learning, a book like North of Dixie takes us to the heart of our greatest and oldest struggle as a nation, something that Northerners as well as Southerners must own, and help overcome together. The road ahead, like Art Shay’s 1966 photo above, may feel like a defaced, cracked back alley, with misguided youth going in the wrong direction. But the greater mass of millennials cry out for a more just and equal America. We press ahead in search of our nation’s spiritual replenishment and deliverance.

Photo of Black Panther Charles Bursey by Ruth-Marion Baruch, Oakland, California, 1969


For more information and to order the North of Dixie book, visit the official website: North of Dixie: Civil Rights Photography Beyond the South
3. An important new book, Policing the Black Man, edited by Angela J. Davis, with essays by Davis, Bryan Stephenson and others, documents the rampant police killing of black men and the full scope of systemic racism, from hands-on-the-hood street profiling to excess sentencing in the highest state courts and a very profitable penal system. In the September 15 acquittal of St. Louis officer Jason Stockley from a first-degree murder charge of Anthony Smith, the system allowed Stockley to avoid a jury case and the Republican judge claimed insufficient proof that the officer did not “fear for his life.” The prosecution argued that Stockley planted a silver revolver in Smith’s car to cover his murder. The only DNA on the gun was Stockley’s –- not Smith’s – and police cameras show no evidence of a gun in Smith’s car during the chase and incident, according to a CNN report. Stockley was recorded rummaging through a bag in his car and returning to Smith’s car, allegedly to plant to revolver. If the gun were Smith’s, it almost surely would’ve contained his DNA. Further, the police cruiser recorded Stockley saying, “I’m going to kill that mother fu–er. Don’t you know it.” The judge claimed that the statement “can be ambiguous depending on the context.” There is no ambiguity in this context, especially given that Stockley shot Smith five times less than a minute later. Such lame judicial reasoning in such an important case is unforgivable. No wonder protests broke out. This is not untypical of the way the judicial system almost always acquits police killings of unarmed black men.
2. “The First White President,” The Atlantic, October 2017, 80
4. My friend, Chuck LaPaglia, founder of the original Milwaukee Jazz Gallery,  sees a historical precedent in America’s current extreme hatred and racism, especially regarding the potential deportation of DACA “Dreamers” which he frames in the backdrop of the Holocaust. His Facebook post is worth considering: “EXILE (definition) The state of being barred from one’s native country, typically for political or punitive reasons.
  1. The same Fascists who were behind the exile (and extermination) of Jews in Nazi Germany are the ancestors of our present day Nazis and white supremacist. The exile of 800,000 of our children is red meat for the Fascists. They can’t be allowed to get away with it.”

    A group of 7,000 Jewish people expelled from Germany by the German Nazi authorities and living in Zbaszyn on the Polish-German border, 3rd November…
    5.. Dick Gregory, From the Back of the Bus, Avon, 1962, 64
    6. “The Future of BLM,” cover story by Dani McClain, The Nation, Oct 9, 2017, 14


Lapham Peak Unit remains a peak nature experience

peak 2Lapham Peak Unit of the Kettle Moraine State Forest is sort of legendary among state parks and locations in Wisconsin, a place of stunning beauty, of rich physical interaction with nature as a hiker, biker, skiier or picnicker, and a place of magnificence and romance.

I revisited it for only the second time on Labor Day Sunday and I sensed it as all of those things. The only reason it wasn’t a wholly romantic experience was because too many people had the same good idea on a sunny holiday weekend. So it was busy, but everyone was in a good mood. Being out in nature does that to people. But if you choose the right time…

You’ll find that people have carved their names as individuals or as couples into the soft, aging wood of the Lapham Peak Tower which is the climax experience of this park. I wouldn’t be surprised that, if I searched a little bit, I might find one inscribed “Cupcake and Snugs.”
That would be my old friend Frank  “Snugs” Stemper, back in high school with his very first girlfriend, “Cupcake.” That was back when they didn’t know much better. They were too starry-eyed with puppy love, surely on the night when they climbed the tower together all alone, and declared their “love” as another one of the stars twinkling in the sky.

They could’ve been “Romeo and Juliet,” but no…I think Cupcake made up the silly names of affection, but big hulking Marquette High offensive lineman Frank went right along with it, like a puppy dog with tail a-waggin’. 1

To be clear, I am not at all encouraging or endorsing any defacing of this fine public facility! And I’m not accusing Cupcake and Snugs of such public malfeasance.

Nevertheless, Frank did leave a piece of his heart stuck in this park, like an arrow through a tree, or the sword in the stone in the legend of King Arthur. He told his buddies in the MUHS poster club a grand tale about his transporting romantic experience at Lapham Peak with Cupcake.

And not long after that, as I recall, on one Monday back at school, I thought I detected a bit of frosting on Snugs’s smirking lips.

Frank did “deface” the wall of the Poster Club by inscribing “Cupcake” on top of “Snugs” on the wall – as this fairly accurate painting of the club I did way back then shows – right below the black horizontal line above the sink.

Well, nobody ever quite stepped on Cupcake, but the romance made for very messy icing on the miniature cake, with anniversary candles we’ve kept burning as a running joke all these years.

And Snugs’ romance with Cupcake was finally smushed under the heel of reality. More than anything, the mythical Van Gogh-esque “Starry Night” on Lapham Peak was a fleeting comet. The high school sweethearts broke up before too long, and Frank ended up marrying a great woman named Nancy and they raised five remarkable kids together.

I first visited the peak, in the 1980s, on a gloomy, overcast day, with my first wife, who may have been under the weather, I can’t recall. But she seemed deathly afraid of climbing the tower and looked like a sick puppy as she hung on to the top railing for dear life. Poor neglected Romance stayed down at the bottom, quivering in fear, or at least in angst of disappointment. (My spouse would later go out on the open-air top of one of the World Trade Center twin towers without a discernible problem. So, go figure)

My current girlfriend Ann Peterson, by contrast, delighted in our hike Sunday and the tower climb, as the picture of her at the top illustrates.

peak 1

Here’s Ann (above) taking a photo on a picturesque turn in the portion of The Ice Age Trail we took to hike up to the tower. The park’s ascending geography includes parking lots at several levels, so the less-than-able can drive up to a lot right under the tower.  But otherwise, I strongly recommend one of several deliciously meandering hikes you can take around the park’s undulating hills before rewarding yourself with a climb up the tower for its stunning views.

Another of the rewards of taking a trek on the Ice Age Trail is encountering trees like one great old oak, full of aging majesty, secrets-laden shadows and sculptural expansiveness. I had to pose for a picture with it (below).

kev and tree lapham

Another couple of trees (below) – which stand like quirky sentinels beside the bottom of the Lapham Peak tower – add great character to the old tower’s proud presence.

peak 4

The peak and park are named for Increase A. Lapham, one of the most-celebrated figures in the pantheon of Wisconsin environmentalists along with Aldo Leopold and John Muir, as the state’s preeminent popular historian John Gurda explained in his latest column for The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel’s Crossroads section last Sunday. Gurda (whose younger brother Paul was also in the Marquette High poster club in my sophomore year) was making the case for including Charles B. Whitnall among those great Wisconsin names, in his excellent column about Whitnall Park.
But I know John Gurda has given Increase Lapham (I love to type that distinctive name) his due in the past. Among the things, Lapham increased awareness and support for the region’s splendid natural resources and beauty. He also increased safety on the Great Lakes. It’s worth recounting this history.

Lapham Peak is the highest point of Waukesha County at 1,233 feet in elevation. In 1851, Charles Hansen acquired the land from the  government and developed it as a tourist attraction. He built a 20-foot-high observation tower and charged a small fee to climb the tower and picnic at its base. During the 1870s, the government use the park tower for surveying purposes.

In time, Increase Lapham – a self-educated engineer, scientist and naturalist – began to make a big difference. Through his work, the Federal Signal Service Division of Telegrams established a signal station at the peak to receive meteorological observations from Pikes Peak in Colorado. Lapham collected this weather data and relayed it to all Great Lakes ports to give advance warning. These warnings helped prevent shipwrecks and gave birth to the National Weather Bureau.

Increase A. Lapham examining a meteor that fell in Wisconsin in 1868. Curiously, “Cupcake” and “Snugs” (see story) had their romance on Lapham Peak in 1968,  exactly 100 years later. Through a wrinkle in time, could this astral rock be the refuse of that “shooting star” romance, or a centennial harbinger? Photo courtesy of Wikipedia public domain

In 1916 Waukesha County Historical Society named the peak in memory of Increase Lapham to honor his efforts in scientific study and his founding of the US Weather Bureau. The state of Wisconsin purchased the hill in 1907, as part of a parcel of land for a tuberculosis sanitarium site. The sanitarium site is now the Ethan Allen School for Boys. In 1939, 50 acres of land surrounding the peak was transferred to the Conservation Department. A 1940 WPA (Works Project Authority) project employed about 60 men who constructed the 45-foot observation tower, installed benches, and developed picnic areas and hiking trails. Today, the Lapham Peak Unit is part of the Kettle Moraine State Forest and its various units are connected by the Ice Age Trail and by the Kettle Moraine Scenic Drive which traverses six counties over 115 miles from Whitewater Lake north to Elkhart Lake.

kev on lapham tower 2

By contrast to my last visit here, it was great getting to the top of the tower on such a lovely day (above). The views were vast and breathtaking.

However there was a haze along the horizon. Someone pointed out to me that you can see Holy Hill (about 25 miles north) if you look closely, even through the haze that day. I took a photograph and if you look closely (in a slightly magnified view below) you can see the famous church on its own lofty skyline perch in another portion of the Kettle Moraine Forest.

Another remarkable environmental circumstance hovered in this mighty vista. Meteorologists report that the haze on the Wisconsin horizon was due to the wildfires now blazing in California. With all the amazing, even mind-blowing and too-often-tragic extreme weather events these days, it’s nothing too surprising, upon reflection.

I am among the great majority of Americans who have no doubt, along with virtually all scientists, that lot of this environmental chaos has to do with human-made climate change. That’s all the more reason we must do something about improving our public policies and personal attitudes and behaviors. What hangs in the balance is the health of our environment, as well as its beauty, to survive for ensuing generations of romantic couples, and any human who simply appreciates natural life, clean air and water, and the rough, rolling magnificence of the American landscape.


Photos by Kevin Lynch and Ann Peterson, unless otherwise noted 

  1. Coincidentally, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is being staged through September 9 at the Lapham Peak SummerStage, the park’s performing arts theater. Information on the venue’s theatrical and musical events is available on the Friends of Lapham Peak website below, under the “Facilities” tab, on a drop-down to “SummerStage.”

Here’s more information about The Lapham Peak Unit of the Kettle Moraine State Forest:




Latin Jazz climaxes in Milwaukee this week with VIVO and Tony Castaneda


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The Tony Castaneda Latin Jazz Sextet in action at the Cardinal Bar in Madison. 

It’s a muy grande week for Latin Jazz in Milwaukee. Tuesday evening at Humboldt Park Milwaukee’s most bracing Latin jazz ensemble, De La Buena, heated up Chill on the Hill, the park’s weekly summer music series. The  ensemble deeply explores the Afro-Cuban daispora, and features some of the area’s top musicians, including percussionist Cecile Negron Jr., tenor saxophonist Aaron Gardner, trumpeter Jamie Breiwick and baritone saxophonist Mike Pauers.

On Thursday at Jazz in the Park in Cathedral Square downtown, virtuoso wind player Warren Wiegratz will host two groups with which he has sustained his renown. He’s the leader of Streetlife, the high-energy band that races all over the musical map as the long-time house band for the Milwaukee Bucks.

But there’s a mellower side to Wiegratz, in the WAMI Award-winning Latin-infused group VIVO, which shares the Jazz in the Park bill with Streetlife. Here you get to hear more of Warren on flute and melodica. Augmented by her skilled guitarist-spouse Tim Stemper, VIVO vocalist Pam Duronio, who also peppers mallated bongos, sings an intoxicating array of bossa nova and samba songs in Spanish and Portuguese.

ZVIVO's lead vocalist-percussionist Pam Duronio and wind and keyboardist Warren WEigratz perform live

Vocalist-percussionist Pam Duronio and winds and keyboard player Warren Wiegratz of VIVO. Photo by Kevin Lynch 

Then, at the Jazz Estate on Murray Street on Milwaukee’s East side, conga player Cecile Negron’s crackling band, CNJ Latin Jazz, with guitarist Neil Davis and vibist Mitch Shiner, will play on Thursday and Friday. Here’s a link to events at The Jazz Estate:



The citywide mini-Latin jazz fest climaxes Saturday night at the Jazz Estate. There,    Wisconsin’s pre-eminent extant Latin jazz ensemble, The Tony Castaneda Latin Jazz Sextet, will make its Milwaukee debut. This will be a quintet version of the band. Cover charge is  $10.

It’s amazing that they’ve never played a public date in Milwaukee before, considering that the band was formed in 1998 and, with a remarkably stable lineup, has worked steadily since.  This may reflect the curious cultural gulf that still exists between Milwaukee and Madison, which might otherwise be sister cities. It’s partly because the smaller city, Madison, has its own self-sustaining, highly-diverse culture even if it is a largely white and college-educated populous.

Also, Castaneda’s excellent band ought to be documented more frequently on recordings than it is. However, its 2007 album Mambo O Muerte (mambo or die) remains a classic of Midwest-bred Latin jazz. Here’s my original review of “Mambo O Muerte” from when it was released.

Like De La Buena, Castaneda’s group is an all-star aggregate of its city’s musicians, including percussionist leader Castaneda, keyboardist Dave Stoler, guitarist vocalist Louka Patenude. Finally,  Castaneda’s band carries a powerful growling bottom with bassist Henry Boehm and, also like De La Buena, a top-notch baritone saxophonist, Anders Svanoe. The band specializes in classics from the so-called  golden age of Latin jazz in the 1940s to 1960s, but the ensemble also includes several accomplished composers and striking original tunes. Here’s a sampling of videos of the band in action: http://www.tonyclatinjazz.com/photos-video/



In This Case, Lesser Lakes is More

lesser cover

Lesser Lakes Trio – The Good Land (Shifting Paradigm)

Lesser Lakes Trio is a quietly intriguing, even enchanting conceptual music trio that seems both of the land and above it, like a cloud , or a broad-limbed tree, or a hovering consciousness.

Their website self describes the Milwaukee-based group as three “sonic storytellers” undergoing a “restless search.” These  storytellers weave a web of enlightenment with melody and rhythm. Harmony is comparatively spare, reflecting the influence of the original  Ornette Coleman Quartet, which liberated itself from the “background” of harmonic changes, and the pop-like but serious musical sensibility recalls another contemporary trio, The Bad Plus.

The evocative statement also notes “there is something timeless and haunting in a waterway whose path skirts the larger bodies for more subtle divergencies, defying where gravity would cause most to rest.” The album cover depicts a vintage photograph from 1911, of three human figures standing on a Lake Michigan shore engulfed in snowdrifts.

Accordingly these somewhat meta “lesser lakes” strive to illuminate rivulets and rushes, “a regional riddle that unlocks a universal desire for musician and audience alike; to feel the wonder of it all.”

lesser band

The music radiates openness, a wide-eyed intelligence that embraces the natural world.  On the title tune, “The Good Land,” trumpeter Jamie Breiwick, here as elsewhere, is more pied piper than strutting jazz virtuoso. He unfolds a spare but eloquent theme that seems to reach out its hand to followers. The consciousness seems to survey the land, pronounce it as good and worthy of preservation, for harvesting, conservation, and appreciation. Breiwick’s trumpet solo uncovers thick textures, like a spade digging into soil, turning over rock and roots, perhaps even a night crawler.

So the group’s musical agility and creativity serve an overarching yet humble purpose. Bassist John Christensen breathes and bellows the musical movement. Devin Drobka is a special drummer, his style uses a deft sense of space, rhythmic disjunction and momentum that implies plenty of life’s complexity, but at an organic level that is not humancentric – down to the ground enough to dance with that earthworm.

A shorter version of this review was published in The Shepherd Express.

Rosenblatt continued: Remembrance of art people past, and present

This post follows, in large part, the pull of nostalgia, which had me recently trekking over to the UW-Milwaukee’s art building (in the Peck School of the Arts), on a sunny windswept afternoon…I’d spent countless hours in this building when I was earning my BFA in the early ’70s. Especially time-consuming was the work on bronze cast sculpture molds, which required applying layer after layer of silica sand slurry to the mold…and waiting for each layer to dry…to build up a sturdy resistance to the infernal temperatures of the prepping furnace before pouring the fiery lava flow of molten bronze into the mold for a cast sculpture.grooms mural

A portion of artist Red Grooms’ mural group portrait of students and faculty of the UW Milwaukee art department in the early 70s, still located on the second floor of UWM’s art building.

During some of those slurry sessions I envied the folks up in the fourth floor, where painting was the area of concentration. But we make our choices and at that point in time I had chosen art that I knew would literally stand up and be counted and appreciated from all directions in its own space. Part of it began with the fast gratification of first working in wet clay and coming up with forms fairly quickly, someone akin, in three dimensions, to the gratification enjoyed by working painters swimming in intoxicating oil paint.

The crossroads between painting and sculpture leads me to my present subject, which I’ll try to be brief about, given that I just recently wrote an extended review of it off Rosenblatt’s retrospective at the Jewish Museum of Milwaukee, which is here:

Adolph Rosenblatt: A great eye, gifted hands and a huge heart

The exhibit, primarily of figurative ceramic sculptures, will close this Sunday, when it is viewable from noon to four although there are also viewing hours Thursday and Friday. Four hours and Info, click here:

Moments & Markers: An Adolph Rosenblatt Retrospective

 Rosenblatt, who died last winter at 83, was a remarkable man and artist, with an outsized personality to match. Though short in stature, he could fill up a room with his presence, especially when he started laughing.
Rosenblatt’s daughter Sarah commented, in sharing my review post on Facebook, that she considered her father a handsome man, so she was uneasy with my description, which spoke of a disparate assemblage of parts in his face. I even drew a comparison to a face Picasso might create.

Rosenblatt photo

Blowup photographs of Adolph Rosenblatt at the retrospective of the late artist, at the Jewish Museum of Milwaukee. The show will be closing Sunday.

I would agree with Sarah that he was, in his own way, a handsome fellow, as the blow-up photos of him, probably in his 40s, show (above) at the Jewish Museum exhibit.  His long dark locks were dashing, with their deep, natural swerve, down and up the side of his forehead.

But she understood my impression of him and, and reminded me of the portrait of her father in the marvelous mural (see image at top) the New York-based artist Red Grooms had done of faculty and students of the UWM art department in the early 70s. I recalled it had graced the art department commons lounge  right outside the fine art gallery, for years. Sarah told me that yes she was referring to the mural, and that the mural was still on display there. I was delighted to know this, and decided I would go revisit it, before the Rosenblatt show ended this Sunday.

Turns out, Grooms’ mural remains easy enough to see during hours that the art school is open. Simply go to the second floor. The elevator opens and there it is.

It remains a stupendous and utterly delightful work, for anyone to see, though nostalgia enhances it for those depicted in it, or who were part of the art department then.

Several outstanding faculty members are depicted in the left portion of the mural (at top). Note the looming mustachioed man, Tom Uttech who, to this day, I’ve never met or seen in person. He stands as tall and imperiously mystical as one of the grand trees in his woodland paintings, magical mystery tours that are among the most beloved productions of any Wisconsin artist.

I’m not sure who the professor is sitting in the wheelchair at the far left. Anybody out there who can name him, or anyone else here?

As for the mural’s other inhabitants, I don’t recall the names of hardly any of the art students partly because I spent, by then, most of my time down in the building’s basement with the scruffy sculptures students. The painters on the fourth floor always acted good-naturedly as if they were a bit above us basement heathens and, of course, literally they were, by four floors. But I do recall the very sweet woman in the middle in the purple sweater, beneath the guy in the yellow Rolling Stones “bitch” T-shirt. Her name was Vicki, whom I may have met in Rosenblatt’s life drawing class.

Grooms ‘signature and the dates are visible in the panel below the seated fellow’s crossed crutches (in image below).

grooms sig

In the image below, you see Rosenblatt’s face. One senses that Rosenblatt’s presence may have helped attract Grooms to UWM For a residency given the affinity between Rosenblatt’s animated sculpture and Grooms’ celebrated 3-D pop-up arts. When he got here he also experienced the Milwaukeean’s mischievous hilarity, which was evident all over his face and head in the mural.

Now I realize that in describing Rosenblatt’s demeanor in my review,  I was subconsciously recalling this portrait – Grooms depicting his face as a nest of colorful strokes of energy swimming in crazy circles. I’m sure Rosenblatt dissolved into his jello-bowl of laughter over it, a number of times.

grooms mural 3

The colorful character of artist Adolph Rosenblatt is captured in Red Grooms image of him at the top of this portion of the UWM mural. 

I’ve been thinking more about Rosenblatt’s inimitable laugh and now I think I recollect it even better. It seemed to have a looney hiccup right in the middle of it. He’d repeat the high-pitched giggle-hiccup several times before composing himself with a slightly satisfied, hoarse sigh.
It was a bit like the Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland after a few too many drinks. Not that Professor Rosenblatt was drinking on the job – life and art were clearly a natural high this man.

Below Rosenblatt in this mural section is bespectacled Professor Joseph Freibert, a far more mild-mannered man, but an excellent teacher and artist. To the right of Freibert stands red-haired Professor John Colt, an art department star, whose original painting style centered on mysterious, even mythical nature forms amid glowing, watercolor-like atmospheres.

I’m not in the mural, being a sculpting basement dweller. But I was there back those days, Below is a photo of me down in the sculpture department’s open-air courtyard, working on my carving to be titled “Chained Life Force.”

Yes this was the early ’70s, as you can tell from the styles of everyone in the mural as well as myself. May those times and people live on, as an indelible piece of Milwaukee cultural history.

kev carving '72

Culture Currents blogger Kevin Lynch sculpting at UWM in 1972.


All photos of Red Grooms’ mural by Kevin Lynch




Adolph Rosenblatt: A great eye, gifted hands and a huge heart

Rosenblatt UWM photo services

The late Adolph Rosenblatt, with his many quirky friends in his large sculpture “My Balcony.” Courtesy UWM Photo Services

Adolph Rosenblatt Retrospective: Moments & Markers, Jewish Museum of Milwaukee, 1360 North Prospect Ave., closing Sunday, August 27. Hours are Monday-Thursday 10-5 PM, Friday 10-3 PM, Sunday 12 noon-4 PM. Free parking is behind the museum building.

I first met Adolph Rosenblatt in the early 1970s when he taught me life drawing in a class at UW-Milwaukee. He helped inspire me to switch my major focus to sculpture, from advertising design. He had just begun exploring the possibilities of figurative clay sculpture, after being primarily a painter. And when I took a basic sculpture class I was seduced by the sensual and palpable life I sensed in wet, malleable clay in my hands.

In our life-drawing class Rosenblatt would set up a large wooden board with mounds of wet clay on a drawing easel and bring the goopy lumps to life. This incongruously proved quite relevant to our ostensibly two-dimensional discipline, as we were trying to create the illusion of sculptural three-dimensionality on paper, with graphite or chart.

He and art professor Joseph Friebert helped liberate my drawing technique, which had been hard-edge and perhaps cold in its attempt at realism. Rosenblatt, a short, slightly hunched man, who died in February of natural causes at 83, would wander among our drawing easels, making incisive, wry and sometimes slightly outre suggestions. After all these decades I don’t recall any, so I’ll borrow from students quoted in a display at the wonderful Rosenblatt retrospective Moments & Markers, at the Jewish Museum of Milwaukee, 1360 North Prospect Ave., which is closing this week on Sunday, August 27.

One student took seriously Rosenblatt’s seemingly counterintuitive advice: “If a painting isn’t working, paint out your favorite part.” I think Rosenblatt understood the tendency of artists to fall in love with their own work, to even fetishize a part they’ve focused on and perhaps overworked. When all else failed, he would say “F–k the world and just paint.” Either was a way to let loose and let go, and see your work with fresh eyes.

And did this man ever have fresh eyes! However, one thing he did miss, it appears, was a self-portrait. Seeing again at his marvelously rough-hewn, vibrantly animated work, I see it reflecting the face of Rosenblatt himself. He should have done a sculptural self-portrait, because his face was a slightly incongruous assemblage of mutating forms. He could concentrate deeply but he always seemed on the verge of slipping over the edge into utter hilarity, of dissembling into laughter, and his infectious giggle of glee. His whole face would become a smile of many mirthful, slightly askew parts, almost Picasso-esque. But I suspect his disheveled lack of self-regard kept him from a self-portrait’s potential narcissism. He had a great eye with a fine mind, a master observer of others.

And the humor that coursed through his whole body transmuted into his art, which might be called “The Human Comedy.” And, not unlike Honore de Balzac’s novel masterpiece La comedie humaine, this artist saw and interpreted the world with a deep sense of the fallibility, absurdity and neuroses amid the beauty in each person. Rosenblatt also gives his figures a gritty gravitas that rarely feels solemn. The retrospective does reveal his social and political consciousness with a series of life-sized head portraits sculpted of former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon.

Another is of Anita Hill, famous for her sexual harassment testimony against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. “I had to tell the truth,” Rosenblatt quotes her in the fired clay. “It is a high-tech lynching.” Hill here is expressive and beautiful, all of her facial contours rise as if struggling up a hill. Another example of the peculiar dynamism Rosenblatt could convey in a high-relief sculpture is “New York Times – Berlin Wall” in which he re-creates a front page of The New York Times in clay, with the headline “East Germans Flood the West: After 40 Years.” The front-page “photograph” is a mass of humanity surging forward toward the viewer, brimming with pent-up hunger for deliverance and freedom, palpable in the heaving urgency of their bodies pouring out of the sculpture.

Rosenblatt Berlin

Rosenblatt’s “New York Times – Berlin Wall.”

In such work you sense, beneath the surface, how humanity’s crookedly ambling collectivity often flirts with, or converges into, tragedy. And yet, Rosenblatt will likely be most remembered for his depictions of modest, undramatic scenarios. He would take his boards full of clay into places like the Oriental Pharmacy lunch counter and render customers, or to the balcony of the Oriental Theater, which both became fairly “epic” works, if such a word could be applied to such striving to capture unassuming human humility and comedy.

One of these centerpieces of the show is the massive tableau, “My Balcony” (1997) depicting the Oriental Theater’s balcony with 50 or 60 people sculpted in quirky detail. You see couples necking, hands and legs entwined, a mother with a squalling child on her knee, another mom nursing her infant in the theater’s ostensible darkness. Each figure seems to radiate a virtual lifetime in the subtle facets of Rosenblatt’s gestural, fingerprinted way of modeling the figure, as if each has been shaped by the slings and arrows of fortune, the vicissitudes of time. This mastery of revelation gives his work a timeless and fascinating humanity – as if each figure has many tales seeping from their pores.


Adolph Rosenblatt vividly captured a wide swath humanity in his large sculptural tableau, “My Balcony.”

The second major piece is less of a frontal display than the balcony, more of an experience of a quotidian place of unique yet oddly familiar people. “Oriental Pharmacy Lunch Counter” (1987) was a now-gone Milwaukee institution of sorts, a layout of long dining counters that snaked its way along five or six lanes of countertops. It was often jam-packed, as it is here and one feels more voyeuristic than with “My Balcony,” because you walk can around it and peer at the mood and situation of each customer and lunch-counter employee, eating, or chatting or daydreaming. One wonders what brought each one of them to the counter on this particular day.

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One corner of Rosenblatt’s large tableaux, “Oriental Pharmacy Lunch Counter.”

The work’s total effect is an exposure of human types that Balzac might have described had he lived in Milwaukee in the 1980s. These two big pieces have a discursive quality akin to Balzac’s sprawling masterpiece, though ambitious on their own terms. Other influences I detect are one he likely admitted to, Honore Daumier, the great artistic lampooner of lower, middle and upper 19th century French classes. Daumier also did highly textural sculpture, and sometimes in apparent affection, as in his classic “Third-Class Carriage.” His superb painting of industrialized France depicts the quiet fortitude of passengers in the third-class train carriage including, like Rosenblatt’s Oriental balcony tableau, a nursing mother.

Daumier Carriage metmuseum.org

Honore Daumier’s “Third-Class Carriage.” Courtesy metmuseum.com

I also sense at least a parallel sensibility in now-famous “underground” cartoonist Robert Crumb’s artlessly skilled renderings of slightly gawky and sometimes sadly comic humans. I see, too, the Crumb parallel in Rosenblatt’s whimsical way with architecture, as in the delightful 1977 sculpture “Houses on Bartlett.” Here, a snowy landscape seems to pulse through its steep, rippling surface and even the houses almost expand and contract, as literally breathing from the lungs of Gaia. Or, more prosaically, an animated cartoon stands smack in the middle of a gallery.

The show’s second gallery shows different sides of the artist, including a good-hearted satire of elderly sun worshipers in “Snow Birds,” and a surprisingly ominous, noirish cast-bronze scene in which human features are wiped away.

Rosenblatt snow birds 2

Rosenblatt’s “Snow Birds.”

A revelation lies in one of Rosenblatt’s large paintings. The stunning untitled oil bears the influence of another great Jewish artist, Marc Chagall, who is represented in the first gallery by a mural-size wall hanging. Chagall’s famous magically flying humans appear in Rosenblatt’s canvas, floating amid a burning atmosphere of abstract impressionism/expression. Such color-soaked brilliance brings us back to his fired clay sculptures, most of which are deftly and creatively hand-painted, adding another dimension to his 3-D art.

Rosenblatt painting

Rosenblatt’s large, untitled abstract impressionist painting, with floating figures reminiscent of Marc Chagall.

And to that end, for all this show’s riches, I must close by returning to the movie theater balcony, a very revealing detail. On the furthest occupied seat to the right in one balcony row sits a man isolated by empty chairs around him, the only notable cavity in the crowded balcony scene. His head turns away from the whole crowd; his left leg rests on his right knee in a posture of a man whiling away the afternoon at the movies, hidden from the world. But he’s not watching the movie, only staring into his own private infinity.

Rosenblatt lonely

This lonely figure tells a deeply human story in Rosenblatt’s “My Balcony.”

His slightly shambling presence, to me, seems the essence of a quietly bereft but almost stubborn solitude. Rosenblatt has purposely captured him in this manner as a flip side – among the most common and universal sides – of The Human Comedy, the heart of loneliness. And for that, it’s a testament to Adolph Rosenblatt’s insight into humanity, his expressive skill and unerring generosity of spirit.

May Adolph live on, at a lunch counter in the skies, with bottomless cups of heavenly, hearty coffee and camaraderie.

All photos by Kevin Lynch, unless otherwise noted.


Father Sky is soulful music to your ears and to the earth

father sky foto

Singer-composer-pianist Anthony Deutsch on the cover of his debut album. Photo by Danielle Simone Charles

Father Sky – Father Sky (self-released)

A capacity crowd recently at bucolic Villa Terrace for his debut CD-release celebration and Father Sky itself are testament. Young Milwaukee pianist-singer-composer Anthony Deutsch has old-soul wisdom and gifts for speaking to people about matters of the heart, and of the mind/body disconnect that often separates us from our deepest nature and from Nature.


Milwaukee’s bucolic Villa Terrace overlooking Lake Michigan, was Anthony Deutsch’s choice of location recently to perform his nature-oriented music, “Father Sky.” Photo by Kevin Hansen.

His bluesy melodicism recalls the deceptively spare alt-jazz tunesmithing of The Bad Plus’ Ethan Iverson, a thread strengthened by Father Sky bassist John Christiansen and drummer Devin Drobka.  But Deutsch loves Nina Simone. His singing follows her forlorn, loamy eloquence – her world-weary persistence and faith. To me, Deutsch’s style also mirrors the exquisite jazz singer-pianist Andy Bey – the naked willingness to reveal male vulnerability.

Still, Deutsch’s folky, Father Sky-meets-Mother Earth sensibility tends to personal ecological vision, like someone picking pieces of grimy dust out of a spider’s web. Deutsch croons artfully but, unlike Bey, he’s a tall, large person, so his spacious baritone sometimes projects like a wolf howling at the moon. He leans a lot on the sustain pedal for sweet wisps, but the piano also pirouettes in sun-lit atmospherics. And “Soon, My Love” has a funky kick Gil Scott-Heron would dig. “Gonna Find Home” yearns for a home that’s everywhere, like the holy land Lakota Black Elk spoke of. There’s musical and spiritual substance here (he shows harmonic chops playing standards live). This beguilingly wayward talent might just take you away, home.


A slightly shorter version of this review was published by Shepherd Express.






Jazz Now will celebrate the Milwaukee jazz experience in time, sound and spirit

Jazz Now event poster II

Poster designed by Elizabeth Vogt

Milwaukee ain’t The Big Apple, nor is it The City of Big Shoulders. On its best days, the city shines, like the magnificent Santiago Calatrava addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum. On its worst days, it weeps a river of tears.

This is a struggling rust-belt city with more than its share of social and racial problems. That doesn’t mean it’s not a city of vibrant and meaningful culture, a city that can heal and grow by virtue of its diverse community, perseverance, and vision.
The Jazz Gallery Center for the Arts, once the home of the storied Milwaukee Jazz Gallery, counts on that progress and is willing to celebrate it right now, with something called Jazz Now. It’s a special event that acknowledges the city’s special genius of jazz and the toil to survive and connect, singing the song of Milwaukee’s surprisingly vaunted musical past, its present and, most importantly, its future.

So I am especially proud of an invitation to be part of this celebration, which will happen on Saturday, Aug. 12, at 8 p.m. (doors open at 7).

I will give a reading from my forthcoming book Voices in the River: The Jazz Message to Democracy, specifically parts of it which highlight the history of jazz here, especially in the halcyon days of the Milwaukee Jazz Gallery,  in the 1970s-80s. I will be joined by trumpeter-bandleader-educator and jazz archivist Jamie Breiwick. He will briefly also explore the city’s musical pasts and present, especially as archived and documented in the valuable website Milwaukee Jazz Vision.

Special awards will be given in the name of perhaps the city’s greatest living jazz legend, guitarist Manty Ellis. The Manty Ellis award will honor persons for “exceptional support of jazz in Milwaukee” Ellis has exemplified decades of stellar musicianship and historic commitment to jazz education. He has also organized more recently The Jazz Foundation of Milwaukee. The organization is affiliated with the national Jazz Foundation of America, which will sponsor the event and cover it for their national newsletter.

Awards recipients will be announced at the event.

manty at JG

Manty Ellis (seated at center) will perform with his quartet at Jazz Now at The Jazz Gallery Center for the Arts on Sunday, August 12. Photo by Elizabeth Vogt.

Ellis and Breiwick will also perform at the event with a quartet and special guest performers.

Another award will be given in the name of Chuck LaPaglia, the founder and owner of the original Milwaukee Jazz Gallery, for persons providing “outstanding promotion of jazz in Milwaukee.”
Without his vision and dogged dedication, Milwaukee would’ve had a far poorer jazz scene and history.
But LaPaglia was there when we needed him, and now we are here in celebration.

chuck at JG

Milwaukee Jazz Gallery founder-owner Chuck LaPaglia back in the day.

One more than one occasion, the center’s current manager Mark Lawson has said to me, “What this place really needs is an angel or two.”

The event will honor one angel who has finally delivered something and several other meaningful supporters of Milwaukee jazz, awards chosen by Manty Ellis.

Nevertheless, the venue could use another benefactor, to sustain general operations, including maintenance, booking and promotion. But that’s one reason to get the word out on this event, where we’ll measure and acknowledge the center’s great value to our city and to the music and the arts.

Come on down and let the good times roll.


Jazz Now event poster II

Steve Earle: The Hard-Core Troubadour Carries Wounds in his Outlaw Heart

Steve rocks

Steve Earle (right) and two of the Dukes rock out at a recent concert at the Minneapolis Zoo.  Dukes’ fiddle player Eleanor Whitmore and guitarist Chris Masterson also played a short opening set in their duo incarnation, The Mastersons. All photos by Kevin Lynch 

Apple Valley, MN – Steve Earle continues to amaze, for the depth of his musical and songwriting talent, his passion, righteousness and intellect.  Especially the way he often weaves these things through any given song.

He’s also a rare bird for his self-described working-class redneck cultural background. Our overheated stereotyping today might peg him as one of the anti-intellectual, blind-faith types that walk the Donald Trump lockstep. But Earle’s a patriotic lefty and an author with so much to give in mind and heart, and this was abundantly clear when he performed Sunday night at the Weesner Amphitheatre in the Minneapolis Zoo.

His extremely generous set displayed the range of style and attitude he’s cherished for.

A key moment arrived when he recounted his experience of beloved singer-songwriter Guy Clark’s death, which began with a story about high school teachers who showed Earle the way. Fellow Texan Clark had battled cancer for a decade, and lost his soul mate Susanna Clark a few years earlier. Earle recounted waking up in Nashville, and joining other mourners to sing Clark’s songs. In his new album’s liner notes, Earle explains how he packs grief in his back pocket: “It’s no secret that loss comes naturally to those of us who wander the outer edges of the wide world. We’ve not only come to expect that, most of us have made it our stock and trade to embrace it, savor it, set it to the melody that the North wind whistles and the rhythm of a broken heart.”

When he got home, Earle wrote his song for Clark, “Goodbye Michelangelo.” It shows his well-honed tender side. Plucking a plaintive electric mandolin, he sang: “So long, my Captain adios/ Sail upon the sea of ghosts/ Chase the white whale to the end/ Bring the story back again…You taught me everything I know/ Goodbye Michelangelo.”

Why “Michelangelo”? Clark was an artist-craftsman, a sculptor of guitars, as well as a musical poet like his best friend, and Earle’s first great influence, Townes van Zandt. (Guy’s ashes are accordingly waiting to be incorporated into a sculptor’s bronze statue. For a great example of that three-man connection, hear the album Steve Earle, Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark: Together at the Bluebird Café.)

“Michelangelo” graces Earle’s new album So You Wannabe an Outlaw, which is inspired by an original “outlaw musician,” Waylon Jennings. His classic album Honky Tonk Heroes grabbed Earle’s wayward heart again, not long ago when he was searching for an album theme. Jennings’ album was another timeless collaboration of dust-covered compatriots, Billy Joe Shaver and Tompall Glaser. 1

Earle’s a man of brotherhood and sisterhood, and both tendencies are shot through with romanticism, he admitted Sunday, toward the end. He openly recounted circumstances that surround his current situation, not-long divorced from his former musical mate and spouse Allison Moorer. He’s hopelessly star-crossed, it seems, having been married seven times, including twice to the same woman. Despite it all, Earle still believes in romance, not only between lovers, but in the idea that there’s a person out there for everyone. He even helped Moorer finish a song not long ago, which he then recorded and performed, “News from Colorado.” And even if his belief is riddled with holes, he now cherishes the provisional freedom of “watching all the baseball games I want to.”

These reflections led to the new album’s “The Girl on the Mountain,” which echoes Townes Van Zandt’s “Colorado Girl,” speaking pointedly of a love he can’t let go. Earle could always soften his boot heel-tough voice and it drags its feet like a hobo here: “Sometimes late at night I pray/She’ll come down to me someday/But the girl up on the mountain never knew.” The ambiguity of that last clause pricks the heart. Did she ever really know how he loved her? Did he ever really have a chance? Would he always lose her to a mountain?

Steve E

Steve Earle is a self described “romantic” who’s unafraid to bare his soul in concert.

The new album bears various riches, including two hard-life songs “If Mama Could See Me” and the harrowing “Fixin’ to Die.” The former one walks the fine line between shame and regret: “If mama could see me in this prison she’d a cried but she cain’t,” another canny line about tough realities. What mother can really accept an imprisoned child?

“Fixin’ to Die” recounts a crime of passion: “Fixin’ to die and I reckon that I’m going to hell. Shot my baby in the Heaven-on-the-Highway hotel!” Earle followed it up with the thematically conjoined “Hey Joe,” best known as a cover by Jimi Hendrix. It’s another murder ballad that he and his ace band The Dukes lent great power and even majesty, the broad-shoulders of tragedy. It also included a razor-edged political ad lib: “I’m goin’ down south before that a–hole builds that wall/ So a man can be free!”

Earle mixed in just enough of his superb catalog for variety, including the heavy metal grinder “Copperhead Road,” the pealing mysticism of the minor-key vamp “Transcendental Blues,” the stirring call-and-response of “City of Immigrants” and, in encore, one of his most exhilarating songs, “Johnny Come Lately.”

In the World War II tradition, “Johnny” celebrates returning veterans, even though this tale tells of a Purple Heart Vietnam vet who’s plenty worse for wear. Yet the irony of his troubles make hardly a dent in the hometown hoopla. Wait until he tries to find a job.

Finally, I can’t overlook Earle’s power-packed new song “The Firebreak Line,” which, he said, might be the first and only song dedicated to wildfire fighters. Wildfires continue to ravage droughted areas and threaten property and human health and life. Talk about a new breed of unsung heroes. Until now. “Gotta pray that the wind’ll die/ and it rains down from on high/ raise a glass/ for the hotshots past/ in hotshot heaven up above the sky.”

Even if his personal life – including serious prison time for drug convictions – often plays like a B disaster movie, Earle is a hard-core hero in my book, the sort we need as many as possible of in our blighted culture and politics.

He also displayed his superb musical taste in his choice of opening acts. The first group, the duo called The Mastersons, are actually members of the current edition of the Dukes, and include the excellent guitarist-vocalist Chris Masterson and violinist-mandolinist-vocalist Eleanor Whitmore. Together the couple dealt out piquant harmonies and snap-dragon rhythms.


The Cactus Blossoms add very original dimensions to their Everly Brothers-esque vocal harmony style.

Harmonies were also the calling card of the second opening group, The Cactus Blossoms, and if you only glanced at the card you’d swear it read “The Everly Brothers.” I’ve never heard a group more perfectly and pointedly capture the gleaming fraternal resonances of that famous duo. And yet, for all that, you found not a single Everly cover in the set of this St. Paul-based group. Their lone cover was an old Kinks song, “Who’ll Be the Next in Line?” And they burn a very personal trademark into their style. For all their soul, the Everly Brothers almost sounded slick compared to this group. Which doesn’t mean The Cactus Blossoms lack for high musical skills. The vocal harmonies are achingly plangent and precise. From their mirror voices and looks you’d swear they’re blood brothers but nope, the singers are Page Burkum and Jack Torrey. And tellingly, they make no mention of the Everly brothers’ style on their website bio page.

What’s different is that the Blossoms slather a thick, hazy glaze of knotty-pine country on their Everly-ish pipes, often delivered at a sleepy shuffle, but with a band fully capable of cranking up for a bluegrass style hoe-down, or personalized Honky Tonk with a hint of burnished class. The overall effect, at its best, is down-home, infectious and quietly thrilling.

zoo amphThe Weezner Amphitheater at the Minneapolis Zoo is a stunningly picturesque concert setting.


1 Earle historically is a brilliant collaborator, among his highlights have been full album-collaboration with the Del McCoury band, The Mountain, which includes his superb duet of “I’m Still in Love with You,” Iris Dement, reminiscent of his joyous “You’re Still Standing There,” with Lucinda Williams. He recorded “Johnny Come Lately” with the ultimate rabble-rousing Irish bar band, The Pogues.  Then there’s his duet with Allison Moorer “After The Fire Is Gone” from Coal Miner’s Daughter: A Tribute To Loretta Lynn, and several duets with Emmylou Harris and one with his sister Stacey Earle.









Tonight hear vintage Grant Green and “Emergency!” by The Tony Williams Lifetime performed live at the Jazz Estate


Photo courtesy Polydor Records

Emergency! by the Tony Williams Lifetime always had the pressing urgency it’s titled insisted on. But it was also always a cauldron of mystery, rough allure and power. In 1969, it churned the way forward for most of the jazz-fusion era, and distilled as much burgeoning talent into a trio as any group of its era.

That adds up to one of the most promising local jazz events in recent memory. Guitarist Neil Davis will lead a trio that will perform the original two-record set Emergency! live tonight at 9 p.m. at The Jazz Estate.


Davis is a technically-gifted and historically-curious guitarist and educator, and one of the co-founders of the West End Conservatory and Milwaukee Jazz Vision, the website that promotes and documents local and national jazz in the Milwaukee area.

However, because Davis could not find the proper organist to do the record full justice, he has changed his plans. The night will feature a couple of tunes from Emergency! and be a tribute to the guitarist Grant Green, drawing from the albums Green Street and Standards. The bassist will be Clay Schaub and the drummer Devin Drobka.

The original Emergency! recording included the youthful, oddly disarming vocals of drummer Williams.

“Where am I going?” Williams sings at one point. “Where have I come from? If anyone asks me, I know I can say. ” The listener wonders as well, and perhaps Williams did at times, but you can’t help feel pulled along on this uncanny adventure. Williams’ drums blend whisper-to-roar snare press rolls, and a blistering array of attacks, explosions  and thrumming, throbbing back beats. Yet there are also disarming scenes of quiet otherworldliness.

Williams, only 24 at the time, was boldly charting new ground here. He hired the visionary organist Larry Young and the brilliant British guitarist John McLaughlin, who got his first chance to fuse jazz and rock. He would, of course, become a giant of fusion, especially with The Mahavishnu Orchestra. Here he blended fiery speed with bracing, uncategorizable textures.

Young, a modal innovative stylist on electric organ, summons some of the most ethereal sounds ever mustered from the instrument. At times he sounds like an ice-skating rink organist on acid. But he’s clearly a virtuoso.

Tony Williams_ Memories Of A Drum Genius – Drum! Courtesy Drum! Magazine

Miles Davis showed up at one of the trio’s first live performance, and was so impressed that he asked the trio to join his band. Williams declined at first, even though he’d been part of Davis’s classic ’60s quintet from the age of 17. But before long, Davis had lured Williams and McLaughlin to help him record his break-out fusion impressionism masterpiece, In a Silent Way. Organist Young would follow along with the drummer and guitars on Davis’s seminal jazz fusion record Bitches Brew. 

But much that was fresh, strange and wondrous about the first possibilities of fusion arose like a dancing, sinuous flame in Emergency!